Rolling Out Global Hit Teams

Gen. Stanley McChrystal honed the use of hunter-killer teams in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama fired him, but the administration is exporting McChrystal’s ideas to other hot spots.

A U.S. Special Operations forces Service member scans the surrounding area with his rifle from a defensive fighting position during an operation in Zabul province, Afghanistan, May 28, 2011. The operation was aimed at disrupting insurgent activity in a volatile district in the province. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Whitney/Released)
U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Whitney/Released
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Yochi J. Dreazen
Sept. 1, 2011, 12:28 p.m.

On Feb. 16, heli­copter-borne teams of U.S. spe­cial-op­er­a­tions per­son­nel and Afghan com­mandos des­cen­ded in­to the Charikar dis­trict of Par­wan province, an in­creas­ingly vi­ol­ent swath of north­ern Afgh­anistan. The elite forces swarmed an in­sur­gent safe house and cap­tured a seni­or “me­dia emir” named Farid, a former dent­ist who was help­ing the Taliban spread their mes­sage throughout Afgh­anistan and Pakistan.

The Navy SEALs quickly sub­dued Farid, but that was just the be­gin­ning. A seni­or NATO of­fi­cial with dir­ect know­ledge of the raid said that the SEALs searched Farid’s hideout and used spe­cially de­signed equip­ment to mine in­form­a­tion about oth­er mil­it­ants from his com­puters, cel­lu­lar phones, and satel­lite phones. The com­mandos re­layed the data to an­oth­er SEAL team on standby at a nearby U.S. out­post, the NATO of­fi­cial said. The second de­tach­ment of SEALs and Afghan com­mandos quickly used that in­form­a­tion to ar­rest a sus­pec­ted pro­du­cer of road­side bombs and an in­sur­gent who of­fi­cials say com­manded dozens of fight­ers in east­ern Afgh­anistan. The en­tire se­quence of raids took just over an hour, the NATO of­fi­cial said.

The raid on Farid was only one of more than a dozen cap­ture-or-kill mis­sions that took place on Feb. 16, just a single day in the huge and sus­tained in­crease in spe­cial-ops at­tacks in the past few years. In 2010, ac­cord­ing to one former top of­ficer, spe­cial-op­er­a­tions teams car­ried out about 4,000 mis­sions. The over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity were in Afgh­anistan, Ir­aq, and Pakistan, in­clud­ing the as­sas­sin­a­tion of Osama bin Laden earli­er this year.

But the raids aren’t lim­ited to war zones. In a far-reach­ing shift, the United States is tak­ing the tac­tics and sys­tems it de­veloped in Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq and ap­ply­ing them across a broad swath of the globe. Joint “hunter-killer” teams, made up of elite mil­it­ary forces and Cent­ral In­tel­li­gence Agency para­mil­it­ary op­er­at­ives, have car­ried out mis­sions in­side a half-dozen oth­er sov­er­eign coun­tries. Among them: Le­ban­on, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syr­ia, and Ye­men.

The bat­tle­field is likely to ex­pand even farther in the years ahead: U.S. per­son­nel are act­ively mon­it­or­ing the po­ten­tial threats from Is­lam­ist ex­trem­ist move­ments in the Horn of Africa and Cent­ral Asia. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has made clear that it will not shy away from uni­lat­er­al strikes in­to oth­er coun­tries if it be­lieves it has cred­ible and timely in­tel­li­gence on spe­cif­ic sus­pec­ted ter­ror­ists. In early May, for in­stance, a spe­cial-op­er­a­tions air­craft flew in­to Ye­men and fired mis­siles at a truck that of­fi­cials said was car­ry­ing An­war al-Aw­laki, the Amer­ic­an-born rad­ic­al cler­ic who ap­pears to have in­spired the would-be Times Square bomber, Fais­al Shahz­ad, and the ac­cused Fort Hood shoot­er, Nid­al Has­an. Aw­laki es­caped the strike and re­mains at large.

New com­bin­a­tions of com­mandos from mil­it­ary units such as the SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force and of ci­vil­ian per­son­nel from the CIA’s Spe­cial Activ­it­ies Di­vi­sion are car­ry­ing out the mis­sions. The teams have killed about 20 seni­or mil­it­ants in coun­tries oth­er than Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq, ac­cord­ing to U.S. of­fi­cials fa­mil­i­ar with their work. That’s a far high­er fig­ure than has pre­vi­ously been dis­closed. The teams have also helped to kill dozens of oth­er sus­pec­ted mil­it­ants by cov­ertly en­ter­ing hos­tile coun­tries and then dir­ect­ing mis­sile strikes by drone air­craft and heli­copters. In Libya, roughly two dozen SAD op­er­at­ives have been work­ing with rebels for the past sev­er­al months to co­ordin­ate the NATO air­strikes that helped topple Liby­an strong­man Muam­mar el-Qad­dafi, ac­cord­ing to an of­fi­cial with dir­ect know­ledge of their work.

The fran­chising of the war on ter­ror­ism car­ries big po­ten­tial risks. Ye­men and Pakistan have ta­citly en­dorsed U.S. drone strikes with­in their bor­ders, and Somalia’s fra­gile gov­ern­ment has pub­licly re­ques­ted Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary and in­tel­li­gence as­sist­ance. But uni­lat­er­ally de­ploy­ing what amount to U.S. hit teams in sov­er­eign coun­tries could spark fierce dip­lo­mat­ic and polit­ic­al back­lashes. Pakistan re­acted furi­ously to the May raid that killed bin Laden, and Is­lamabad threatened to use mil­it­ary force against any new Amer­ic­an ground in­cur­sions in­to the coun­try. Hezbol­lah, the heav­ily armed Shia mi­li­tia, has threatened to re­tali­ate against Is­rael for any Amer­ic­an strikes in­side Le­ban­on or Syr­ia.

In Afgh­anistan, the huge num­ber of raids is com­plic­at­ing the U.S. coun­ter­insur­gency strategy, which de­pends on win­ning the sup­port of the Afghan people. The mis­sions have killed and in­jured sig­ni­fic­ant num­bers of ci­vil­ians and ter­ri­fied count­less oth­ers. Un­der pub­lic pres­sure, Afghan Pres­id­ent Ham­id Kar­zai has de­man­ded a halt to the raids, but seni­or U.S. mil­it­ary of­fi­cials have thus far re­jec­ted any change in strategy.

It’s dif­fi­cult to gauge how well the new ap­proach is work­ing. Seni­or U.S. of­fi­cials be­lieve that the op­er­a­tions have decim­ated al-Qaida’s seni­or ranks and made it ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for the group to raise money or plan at­tacks. In Ju­ly, De­fense Sec­ret­ary Le­on Pan­etta said that the U.S. was “with­in reach of stra­tegic­ally de­feat­ing” al-Qaida, and Amer­ic­an coun­terter­ror­ism of­fi­cials note that no large-scale ter­ror­ist strikes have taken place in­side the United States since Sept.11, 2001. But key mil­it­ant lead­ers such as Aw­laki and the new Qaida lead­er, Ay­man al-Za­wahiri, re­main at large. Re­gion­al af­fil­i­ates of the mil­it­ant group, mean­while, have re­cently moun­ted strikes in Al­ger­ia, Ni­ger­ia, and oth­er coun­tries.

Con­di­tions also re­main dicey in Afgh­anistan, even though U.S. spe­cial-op­er­a­tions teams and CIA para­mil­it­ary op­er­at­ives have moun­ted thou­sands of tar­geted strikes there. In an in­ter­view, the seni­or NATO of­fi­cial said that the joint teams killed or cap­tured 235 mil­it­ant lead­ers in Afgh­anistan over a 90-day peri­od in sum­mer 2010 while killing 1,066 rank-and-file fight­ers. The U.S. forces cap­tured nearly 1,700 oth­er in­sur­gents dur­ing those three months, the of­fi­cial said.

But the Taliban is far from sub­dued. The num­ber of road­side-bomb at­tacks in Afgh­anistan spiked to a re­cord 1,600 this June, nearly 25 per­cent high­er than the monthly av­er­age for the en­tire con­flict. U.S., NATO, and Afghan cas­u­al­ties have been rising stead­ily. At least 416 Amer­ic­an and NATO troops have died so far this year, put­ting 2011 on pace to match and prob­ably ex­ceed the re­cord 711 killed in Afgh­anistan last year. The Taliban is also step­ping up its at­tacks in once-quiet parts of north­ern and west­ern Afgh­anistan, while show­ing no in­terest in sub­stant­ive peace talks.

Right or wrong, the hunt-to-kill teams seem cer­tain to re­main a corner­stone of U.S. na­tion­al-se­cur­ity strategy for years to come. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is giv­ing the joint spe­cial-op­er­a­tions/CIA teams wide lat­it­ude to con­duct tar­geted mis­sions around the world. Adm. Eric Olson, who just stepped down as the head of the mil­it­ary’s se­cret­ive Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand, told the As­pen Se­cur­ity For­um this sum­mer that his forces con­duc­ted nearly 4,000 such op­er­a­tions in 2010 alone, the highest level re­cor­ded. “The tac­tics of this thing were routine,” Olson said, re­fer­ring to the bin Laden raid. “The people who were in­volved do this every night.”

The ex­pan­sion of kill teams may be the most en­dur­ing leg­acy of re­tired Army Gen. Stan­ley Mc­Chrys­tal, who resigned from his post as the top U.S. com­mand­er in Afgh­anistan last year after an un­flat­ter­ing pro­file in Rolling Stone. Mc­Chrys­tal may no longer be in uni­form, but the sys­tems he set up in Ir­aq and re­fined in Afgh­anistan are what al­low the spe­cial-ops forces and the in­tel­li­gence com­munity to work to­geth­er more closely and ef­fect­ively than ever be­fore, par­tic­u­larly in new­er battle­grounds such as Somalia and Ye­men.

He dra­mat­ic­ally ex­pan­ded the num­ber of spe­cial-op­er­a­tions/CIA teams when he ran the Joint Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand in Ir­aq from Feb­ru­ary 2006 to Au­gust 2008. The forces hunted down thou­sands of Shia and Sunni in­sur­gent lead­ers dur­ing those two and a half years. Many seni­or mil­it­ary of­fi­cials be­lieve that the spe­cial op­er­a­tions and CIA com­bined teams played a cent­ral role, along with the Sunni Awaken­ing move­ment, in turn­ing things around in Ir­aq.

Mc­Chrys­tal also helped to de­vel­op equip­ment and train­ing pro­to­cols so that the joint teams could im­me­di­ately reap valu­able in­form­a­tion, such as phone num­bers and com­puter files, and feed it to oth­er teams that could then loc­ate and at­tack oth­er mil­it­ants.

“The sys­tems he put in place were noth­ing short of re­volu­tion­ary,” Gen. Dav­id Pet­raeus, then the top com­mand­er in Afgh­anistan, told Na­tion­al Journ­al in an in­ter­view last fall. With the war against ter­ror­ism shift­ing to new fights against shad­owy groups in places such as Somalia and Ye­men, a close look at the Mc­Chrys­tal doc­trine provides a road map of sorts for the fu­ture.

In many ways, Mc­Chrys­tal spent much of his ca­reer groom­ing fight­ers for cov­ert war­fare. The son of a two-star Army gen­er­al who served in Ger­many after World War II, he went to the U.S. Mil­it­ary Academy and joined all of his sib­lings in either join­ing or mar­ry­ing in­to the armed forces. He spent nearly three dec­ades in the cov­ert world of “black SOF,” the ul­trasecret mil­it­ary units such as Delta Force charged with killing or cap­tur­ing the na­tion’s most-wanted en­emies.

In 2003, Mc­Chrys­tal led a clas­si­fied Joint Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions task force that cap­tured fu­git­ive Ir­aqi lead­er Sad­dam Hus­sein. Three years later, his forces tracked Abu Musab al-Za­r­qawi, a vi­ol­ent ex­trem­ist who ran al-Qaida’s Ir­aq op­er­a­tions, to a safe house near the rest­ive city of Baquba. Delta Force per­son­nel on the ground called in an air­strike, and an Amer­ic­an F-16 de­mol­ished the build­ing with a pair of 500-pound bombs. Mc­Chrys­tal, who had spent years hunt­ing Za­r­qawi, left his base in Bagh­dad and flew to the site. When he ar­rived, the ter­ror­ist — who had suffered ser­i­ous wounds from the air­strike — was strapped to a stretch­er and barely con­scious. Ac­cord­ing to an op­er­at­ive who was at the scene, the gen­er­al looked down at Za­r­qawi, nod­ded his head, and then flew back to Bagh­dad.

Mc­Chrys­tal later told col­leagues that the Za­r­qawi raid was the “proof of concept” for his ap­proach to coun­terter­ror­ism. The spe­cial-op­er­a­tions per­son­nel hunted down the ter­ror­ist in close col­lab­or­a­tion with the CIA, whose agents helped to identi­fy and track Za­r­qawi’s spir­itu­al ad­viser and closest con­fid­ant, and with the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency, whose tech­no­lo­gic­al wiz­ards eaves­dropped on con­ver­sa­tions between the spir­itu­al ad­viser and Za­r­qawi’s primary cour­i­er. As with the raid in Afgh­anistan years later that cap­tured Farid, the Delta team’s work didn’t end with the air­strike on Za­r­qawi’s com­pound. The op­er­at­ors searched through the wreck­age of the in­sur­gent safe house and funneled phone num­bers and files to oth­er spe­cial-ops per­son­nel. With­in hours, teams from Mc­Chrys­tal’s com­mand raided 17 loc­a­tions in and around Bagh­dad, killing sev­er­al wanted mil­it­ants and seiz­ing en­emy files about planned at­tacks.

Mc­Chrys­tal, who de­clined to be in­ter­viewed for this art­icle, de­tailed the evol­u­tion of his think­ing on coun­terter­ror­ism in a little-no­ticed For­eign Policy art­icle earli­er this year. In the es­say, he wrote that the U.S. mil­it­ary’s fun­da­ment­al mis­take in the early years of the Ir­aq war had been to as­sume that al-Qaida in Ir­aq func­tioned like a tra­di­tion­al mil­it­ary or­gan­iz­a­tion. Early on, spe­cial-op­er­a­tions units dia­grammed the ter­ror­ist group on dry-erase boards at their small base out­side Bagh­dad. They mapped it out like a for­eign army, with Za­r­qawi at the top of its chain of com­mand fol­lowed by tiers of re­gion­al com­mand­ers, lieu­ten­ants, and foot sol­diers.

But Mc­Chrys­tal and his col­leagues quickly real­ized that the mod­el didn’t hold. De­cisions wer­en’t made by Za­r­qawi and then re­layed down the lad­der to in­di­vidu­al fight­ers. In­stead, small groups of fight­ers op­er­ated autonom­ously and without wait­ing for or­ders from com­mand­ers.

“We really didn’t un­der­stand the en­emy we were fa­cing,” said re­tired Brig. Gen. Craig Nix­on, who served with Mc­Chrys­tal in Ir­aq and com­manded the elite 75th Ranger Re­gi­ment in com­bat op­er­a­tions in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan. “It took a long time to sort out how dif­fer­ent it was from the pre­vi­ous en­emies we’d faced. We all felt a sense of ur­gency, be­cause we were fa­cing the real pro­spect of not win­ning.”

As they stud­ied al-Qaida in Ir­aq, Mc­Chrys­tal and his aides real­ized that the ter­ror­ists op­er­ated as a net­work of loosely af­fil­i­ated fight­ers, not a hier­archy led by Za­r­qawi. De­feat­ing such a net­work, they con­cluded, would re­quire the U.S. to cre­ate a net­work of its own. The first step in­volved re­lo­cat­ing ci­vil­ian ana­lysts from the CIA, NSA, and the Na­tion­al Geo­spa­tial-In­tel­li­gence Agency to the tent out­side Bagh­dad that housed his Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions per­son­nel. That move en­abled the ci­vil­ian and mil­it­ary op­er­at­ives to jointly ana­lyze in­form­a­tion and fun­nel “ac­tion­able in­tel­li­gence” to forces in the field much more quickly.

Mc­Chrys­tal and his team began to refer to their new cre­ation as “F3EA”: find, fix, fin­ish, ex­ploit, and ana­lyze. He writes in the For­eign Policy es­say that the strategy com­bined ana­lysts who found tar­gets through eaves­drop­ping and oth­er forms of in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing; drone op­er­at­ors who fixed the tar­get by keep­ing it un­der con­stant sur­veil­lance; strike teams that killed or cap­tured wanted mil­it­ants; tech­ni­cians cap­able of quickly min­ing strike sites for maps and oth­er raw data; and a second set of in­tel­li­gence ana­lysts who con­ver­ted that in­form­a­tion in­to ac­tion­able in­tel­li­gence for oth­er at­tack teams.

Un­der this sys­tem, U.S. forces could launch fol­low-on op­er­a­tions with­in hours rather than days. Mc­Chrys­tal and oth­ers who served with him at the time ac­know­ledge, however, that they made nu­mer­ous mis­steps and faced set­backs along the way. In sev­er­al cases, the teams failed to ana­lyze in­tel­li­gence gathered at the scene of a raid quickly enough, giv­ing oth­er mil­it­ants time to es­cape be­fore the strike teams could kill or cap­ture them. In oth­er cases, the raids killed in­no­cent Ir­aqis or dam­aged ci­vil­ians’ homes or cars, spur­ring wide­spread — and, in some cases, vi­ol­ent — an­ger to­ward the U.S.

The CIA and the spe­cial-op­er­a­tions com­munity also needed to over­come linger­ing bad blood be­fore the two groups could work to­geth­er ef­fect­ively. Dur­ing the Bush years, the Pentagon em­bed­ded small teams of SEALs and oth­er elite mil­it­ary forces in U.S. em­bassies around the world to gath­er in­tel­li­gence and pre­pare for pos­sible mis­sions to kill or cap­ture loc­al mil­it­ants. The move in­furi­ated many with­in the CIA, who felt that the troops were en­croach­ing on their turf and tak­ing on roles more prop­erly as­signed to the ci­vil­ian in­tel­li­gence com­munity. Many spe­cial-ops per­son­nel, mean­while, cri­ti­cized the CIA for fail­ing to provide use­ful in­tel­li­gence on the where­abouts of bin Laden and oth­er wanted ter­ror­ists.

Nix­on, the former Mc­Chrys­tal aide, said that some of the in­tern­al con­flicts stemmed from a fun­da­ment­al dif­fer­ence between the mil­it­ary, which saw its mis­sion as killing in­sur­gents, and the in­tel­li­gence com­munity, which saw the value of keep­ing sus­pec­ted mil­it­ants un­der sur­veil­lance in the hope of gain­ing more in­form­a­tion about high­er-rank­ing fight­ers.

“Are you bet­ter off ex­ecut­ing a tar­get or con­tinu­ing to use that tar­get to re­fine your in­tel­li­gence? The in­cent­ives were dif­fer­ent de­pend­ing on which part of the stovepipe you were in,” Nix­on said. “There were some trust gaps up front that we had to work through.”

Over time, however, the ten­sion sub­sided and the joint sys­tems grew in­creas­ingly ef­fi­cient. The CIA’s Spe­cial Activ­it­ies Di­vi­sion has only a few hun­dred op­er­at­ives, but most of them are vet­er­ans of Delta Force and oth­er elite mil­it­ary units. The para­mil­it­ary op­er­at­ives thus have the same back­grounds, speak the same lan­guage, and in many cases have ac­tu­ally served along­side the mil­it­ary per­son­nel they’re teamed with in the hunter-killer units. To co­ordin­ate even more closely, NSA de­ployed mo­bile ana­lysts who of­ten ac­com­pany the spe­cial-ops teams in spe­cially equipped Hum­vees that can track cell-phone sig­nals to pin­point a spe­cif­ic mil­it­ant with­in a few feet of his loc­a­tion. By the end of Mc­Chrys­tal’s time in Ir­aq, joint teams of com­mandos and CIA op­er­at­ives were con­duct­ing about a dozen raids per day, in many cases launch­ing fol­low-up as­saults based on in­form­a­tion found at an ini­tial tar­get site.

“In­tel­li­gence re­covered on the spot was in­stantly pushed di­git­ally from the tar­get to ana­lysts who could trans­late it in­to ac­tion­able data while the op­er­at­ors would still be clear­ing rooms and re­turn­ing fire,” Mc­Chrys­tal wrote. “The in­tel­li­gence re­covered on one tar­get in, say, Mo­sul, might al­low for an­oth­er tar­get to be found, fixed upon, and fin­ished in Bagh­dad, or even Afgh­anistan”¦. The net­work some­times com­pleted this cycle three times in a single night in loc­a­tions hun­dreds of miles apart — all from the res­ults of the first op­er­a­tion.”

“It really was a sig­ni­fic­ant ad­vance over what came be­fore,” said re­tired Army Col. Pete Mansoor, who was Pet­raeus’s ex­ec­ut­ive of­ficer in Ir­aq dur­ing the surge and is now a pro­fess­or of mil­it­ary his­tory at Ohio State Uni­versity. “The abil­ity to quickly com­bine on-the-ground hu­man ana­lys­is with in­tel­li­gence gathered from raids, and to be able to turn that very quickly in­to tar­get­able in­form­a­tion, is a quantum leap over what the mil­it­ary had in the late 1990s or the early part of the Afghan war.”

In the past sev­er­al years, U.S. of­fi­cials have used the sys­tems and teams that Mc­Chrys­tal put in place in Ir­aq to cov­ertly kill mil­it­ant lead­ers in a wide ar­ray of oth­er coun­tries. In Oc­to­ber 2008, CIA op­er­at­ives in Ir­aq dis­covered that a mil­it­ant named Abu Ghadiya was hid­ing out in the Syr­i­an vil­lage of Sukkariyah, ap­prox­im­ately five miles from the Ir­aqi bor­der. U.S. of­fi­cials say that Abu Ghadiya had over­seen the smug­gling of weapons, money, and for­eign fight­ers from Syr­ia to Ir­aq. The CIA funneled the in­form­a­tion on his where­abouts to Joint Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand, which sent a de­tach­ment of Delta Force op­er­at­ives in­to Syr­ia at night that killed him and his body­guards.

The fol­low­ing year, a de­tach­ment of Navy SEALs flew in­to Somalia to kill Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a seni­or Qaida lead­er in Africa; the U.S. com­mandos strafed Nabhan’s car from the air, landed to re­cov­er his body, and then flew back to a wait­ing war­ship. In 2010, a small de­tach­ment of spe­cial-op­er­a­tions troops and CIA para­mil­it­ary op­er­at­ives went in­to Ye­men to help battle mil­it­ants there. U.S. of­fi­cials fa­mil­i­ar with the mat­ter say the team helped the Ye­menis kill half of the Qaida af­fil­i­ate’s top 15 lead­ers in the coun­try.

Skep­tics cau­tion that body counts aren’t the same as vic­tory. Bill Rog­gio is the ed­it­or of The Long War Journ­al, a web­site that tracks and ana­lyzes mil­it­ary and CIA op­er­a­tions in Afgh­anistan, Pakistan, and oth­er hot spots. In an in­ter­view, Rog­gio said that hunter-killer op­er­a­tions were “ef­fi­cient but not suf­fi­cient.” In fact, he said, the U.S. raids could end up spark­ing so much an­ger that they cre­ate more mil­it­ants than they kill or cap­ture.

“It’s good, it works, and it gets guys all over the world,” Rog­gio said. “But can you get enough of them, and can you do it fast enough to make a dif­fer­ence? I’m not sure the an­swer is yes.”

U.S. of­fi­cials don’t show any signs of let­ting up, either in­side Afgh­anistan or in the new­er battle­grounds. Dur­ing a con­firm­a­tion hear­ing earli­er this year for his post as the head of the Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand, Navy Adm. Wil­li­am McRaven told law­makers that Somalia and Ye­men were “areas of con­cern” and said that spe­cial-op­er­a­tions forces were “look­ing very hard” in their dir­ec­tion. It was a rare pub­lic ac­know­ledg­ment of the grow­ing mil­it­ary and CIA pres­ence in­side the two troubled na­tions.

For those on both sides of the shad­ow war, the fight is per­son­al. Just as Mc­Chrys­tal had flown to Baquba to lay eyes on Za­r­qawi after the 2006 air­strike that mor­tally wounded him, McRaven, Mc­Chrys­tal’s suc­cessor, was one of the first people to see bin Laden’s corpse after U.S. heli­copters landed in east­ern Afgh­anistan.

On the oth­er side of the fight, doc­u­ments dis­covered at bin Laden’s lair in Pakistan in­dic­ate that he was look­ing for ways of as­sas­sin­at­ing Pet­raeus, and a seni­or U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial said that in­ter­cep­ted com­mu­nic­a­tions in­side Afgh­anistan sug­ges­ted that Taliban lead­ers were fo­cused on killing both Mc­Chrys­tal and McRaven. The United States may be wind­ing down its in­volve­ment in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan, but ter­ror­ism and the war against it are far from over.


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